University of Vermont

UVM Food Systems Summit Paves the Road to ‘[r]Evolution’

Tamar Adler
Chef and cookbook author Tamar Adler, one of many influential thinkers bringing their ideas and expertise to UVM’s Food Systems Summit. (Photo: Sally McCay)

On an afternoon in which speakers engaged a broad spectrum of topics critical to safely and sustainably feeding our planet, from climate change to economic access to nutritional foods, Tamar Adler walked onto the stage at UVM's Royall Tyler Theater and, despite her “hardnosed” talk, instantly captured the poetry in the fight for real food. It’s less that she quoted Mary Oliver than her explanation for her appearance: muddy boots, stained and bee-stung – she’d arrived straight from picking Vermont strawberries. In response to a friend's suggestion that presentation prep might have been a sensible use of the time, Adler, former cook at Alice Waters' famed Chez Panisse and award-winning author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, answered with Oliver's words: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

But Adler came in from the field to make a point that was quite deliberately unsentimental, understanding that economics drives the food choices of most consumers, and issues of sustainability get dismissed as elitist when the conversation lingers on the meditative qualities of tending a pot on the stove or the bonds forged between farmers and the community as the scent of basil wafts through the market. That just doesn’t close the deal for a tired parent at the end of the day.

So she focused on two imagined shopping baskets and food as units. Basket one seems to carry the day in terms of price and certainly convenience: boneless, skinless chicken breasts, hard-cooked and peeled eggs, packaged ready-to-serve beets. Basket two has a bunch of “raw, dirty, inconvenient beets,” a dozen local eggs, a whole sustainably raised chicken as well as an onion and a bunch of parsley. More expensive, she allowed, more effort from package to plate.

By the time Adler is finished, though, she’s served up a few days of meals with her raw ingredients – cooked beets with roasted onion and parsley, served with homemade mayonnaise (egg yolks quickly whisked with olive oil); sautéed beet greens with a fried egg on top; chicken boiled with the otherwise trashed onion skins and parsley stems then drizzled with parsley oil made from the leaves; pickled beet stems tossed into scrambled eggs, a sandwich from meat picked off the carcass and tossed with leftover mayonnaise; soup made from noodles boiled in the stock created from cooking the chicken; leftover stock mixed with water – add rice and stir for risotto. The time (assuming a few pantry staples) divided over each meal easily rivals that of driving and shopping.

Then she added up the cost of the first basket, from which there’s one meal and no leftovers except for the packaging, leading to landfill overflow. True costs of the one meal mount as she factored in taking the car to the store, biomass and topsoil loss from industrial farming, dealing with a polluted water supply caused by animal waste that leeches from large, confined animal feeding operations.

The unit cost of basket one, Adler said, are now astronomical, having done long-term harm, while actually failing to feed a family as economically in the immediate term. Borrowing from an idea of Wendell Berry’s about the way we raise animals, Adler said, “When we take the messy, inconvenient, inefficient leaves and stems and peels and bones out of our food, when we take the cooking out of our food, we take away the old, elegant solution of how to feed ourselves affordably and responsibly.”

Adler’s talk was inspiring particularly because it was actionable for those who need a wakeup call about the hidden cost of food. Others, like Tanya Fields, brought inspired activism and a tough message based on her previous personal experience as a single working mother in the Bronx – with little access let alone energy for cleaning beets and making mayo. Now she’s launched a grassroots organization, BLK ProjeK, that fights for food sovereignty in poor neighborhoods.

Her fight, she said, is toward “people leading their own liberation, shifting the social justice paradigm from a society that grants privilege to some on the backs of others.” The "hood," she said, doesn’t need more food pantries, nor “missionary tactics from well meaning Midwestern white people: 'We have butternut squash,'” she quips to the crowd, “'and we have come to save you.' What we need is inclusion.”

The audience for this second annual summit, Leading the Necessary [r]Evolution for Sustainable Food Systems, was a diverse group of 325 registered attendees with additional walk-ins and countless others viewing the presentations via live stream. But, as medical professor and expert on nutrition and obesity Yoni Freedhoff said after a jaw-dropping talk on the food messages society sends to kids, “I’m not talking to the choir here in this room but to the congregation out there.” Judging from the passion inside and the stream of live tweets with the hashtag #UVMFoodSummit, the call to revolution is on.